Former president Jacob Zuma’s corruption trial has been postponed to February next year, after he told the high court he wanted to appeal last week’s judgment refusing him a permanent stay of prosecution.
In what must be one of the longest-running legal sagas of our time, the former president is yet to begin his trial on 12 counts of fraud, four counts of corruption, one count of racketeering and one of money laundering.
The charges relate to the infamous “arms deal” — the 1999 purchase by the government of strategic armaments, which has been mired in allegations of corruption for nearly 20 years.
Prosecutor Billy Downer told the high court on Tuesday that the parties had agreed to a hearing of Zuma’s application for leave to appeal in November and that, by February, they would have an idea of which way the case was going.
The February date is a “holding date”, but Downer said the state was hoping the actual trial would start in April. He added that the state was ready to go to trial.
Zuma’s counsel, Thabani Masuku SC, said the former president was also ready to go to trial and had been for the past 14 years. However, he was exercising his “full rights” to appeal.
His co-accused — French arms company Thales — also said it would be seeking to appeal.
The order rejecting the application for a permanent stay was handed down on Friday. A full court rejected his arguments that his prosecution was part of a political campaign against him — and that he should have been prosecuted in 2003 alongside his former financial adviser Schabir Shaik.
After a detailed recounting of the history of the case, a judgment penned by “the court” found that he had “formed common cause” with the National Prosecuting Authority in much of the intervening litigation responsible for the delays.
The court found as “fundamentally flawed” the argument by Zuma’s team that former prosecutions head Bulelani Ngcuka’s decision — to prosecute Shaik and not Zuma — was “part and parcel of a grand political scheme”. Mr Ngcuka had explained his actions, said the court, and his evidence was uncontested.
Also, the complaint that he should have been charged alongside Shaik had been raised before, said the court — by Shaik himself when he appealed to the Constitutional Court. The highest court had rejected the argument, saying that, while there may be good reasons for joint trials, it did not make a specific trial unfair because other possible perpetrators are not tried alongside.
“As we see it, even if a joint trial would have had some benefit for Mr Zuma of which he was deprived of as a result of his prosecution being separated from Mr Shaik … it does not constitute prejudice of any kind which would impact on the fairness of his trial,” said the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) court on Friday.
The court also addressed Zuma’s argument about the spy tapes. These are recordings of phone conversations between former Scorpions’ head Leonard McCarthy and Ngcuka about when to the time the indictment of Zuma — in order to influence the outcome of the ANC’s Polokwane elective conference in 2007.
Zuma’s team had argued that the tapes were conclusive that the prosecution was manipulated for political purposes, in flagrant disregard of the Constitution.
The revelations about the spy tapes were what led the dropping of charges against Zuma in 2009. Then followed a marathon court case by the Democratic Alliance to set aside the decision to drop the charges. It ended at the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) years later, with a concession by Zuma’s team that the decision to drop the charges was irrational.
The court referred to a previous judgment of former SCA deputy president Louis Harms, that “a prosecution brought for an improper purpose is only wrongful if, in addition, reasonable and probable grounds for prosecution are absent”.
“Assuming that Mr Zuma’s accusation was true, that his prosecution is politically motivated, his contention would still be unsustainable,” said the KZN court.
“The seriousness of the offences that Mr Zuma is facing outweighs any prejudice, which he claims he will suffer if the trial proceeds,” said the judgment.